Egyptian wins Harvill Secker prize for translating ‘Gothic Night’

Egyptian actress, writer and editor Wiam al-Tamami was awarded the second annual Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize by the Britishing publishing firm Wednesday night.

The 27-year-old Tamami was recognized at a ceremony in London.

Tamami won the 1000 British pound prize for her translation of Egyptian author Mansoura Ezz Eddin’s ambiguous and dreamlike “Gothic Night” into English. The story, like much of Ezz Eddin’s work, presents potential translators with serious challenges: the narrative is watery and ever-escaping, and the story has a twist ending in which two of the characters meld (readers are led to think) into one.

In Tamami’s translation, the story maintains its dreamy character, but the individual sentences have clarity. Many of the sentences have a strong sensory character, such as, “He moistens his lower lip with his tongue, savoring the idea of night.”

The judges panel, made up of translator Anthony Calderbank, cultural reporter Mayya Jaggi, author Penelope Lively, and editor and prize founder Briony Everroad, noted that the “translation displayed an elegance of style alongside fidelity to the Arabic original, yet the story is wonderfully articulated in the translator’s own voice.”

Ezz Eddin said she “liked the translation a lot” and was very happy that Tamami won the prize. “I hope that this is a strong starting point to a successful career as a translator.”

Ezz Eddin's work often blurs the line between dreams and reality, and thus is difficult for translators to pin down. In “Gothic Night,” the characters and cities are unnamed and the story leaps back and forth in time. But Ezz Eddin insisted, with a wink, that the story is “not that difficult.”

“Her translation is intelligent and sensitive, and it succeeds in capturing the spirit of the text and the meanings that are between the lines,” Ezz Eddin said. She also praised Tamami's broad cultural understanding, which she said has been well-honed to capture the story's hidden pathways.

“I liked the idea of the Harvill Secker [prize] a lot,” Ezz Eddin said, “because it's very important to encourage young translators. Usually, we don't honor translators until they’ve worked a long time, but it’s young people – those at the beginning of their journeys – who are most in need of encouragement.”

Each year, Harvill Secker recognizes a young translator for excellence in translating a work into English. Last year, the prize's jury selected Beth Fowler from 230 entries for her translation of the Argentine author Matías Néspolo’s “El Hachazo.” This year, 92 translations were submitted from 18 different countries.

Tamami currently works as a freelance editor for the AUC Press. AUC Press Associate Director R. Neil Hewison said, “Our translators should consider themselves very lucky to have their manuscripts edited by her – and indeed many of them do.”

He added that she understands “better than any of us” the many aspects of a good translation, and expressed his hope that “now perhaps Wiam will agree to translate something for the AUC Press. I have been trying to persuade her to do so for a long time!”

Tamimi’s translation of “Gothic Night” can be read at the Granta Magazine website.

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